Chesterton on Martyrdom vs. Suicide

In the 5th chapter of Orthodoxy, The Flag of the World, Chesterton talks about the difference between martyrdom and suicide.

Martyrdom:

  • A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.
  • Wants something to begin.
  • Noble because he dies that something may live.
  • Shown a wild encouragement by Christianity.
  • Early Christians talked of martyrdom with a “horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flower” (66).
  • The martyr flung his life away and “he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence” (66).

Suicide:

  • A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.
  • Wants everything to end.
  • Ignoble because he dies to that something may end.
  • Shown a weird harshness by Christianity.
  • The suicide flung his life away and “he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren’s” (66).

Final point:

In the end, it is the martyr that is truly courageous. He has embraced Christ’s admonition that “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it” by having a “strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. The martyr has sought life with a furious indifference to it. The martyr has desired life like water and yet drunk death like wine!” (cf pg. 86).

“The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the word to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what people want, but rather what the people need… Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most” (St. Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton)

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